Workings of FoI Act too secret for the public to see

From The Times:

"A QUARTER of a century has elapsed since Yes, Minister was first broadcast, but the spirit of Sir Humphrey Appleby is still alive and kicking in the corridors of power.

The Times has learnt that, in a piece of pure Sir Humphrey logic, Whitehall has blocked a freedom of information request about the workings of the Freedom of Information Act because the information that might be freed is far too secret for public consumption.

Denying the request, a mandarin wrote: “Releasing information which would allow analysis of policy decisions affecting the operation of the (FoI) Act would of itself be detrimental to the Act’s operation because it may reveal sensitivities.”

The refusal, from the Histories, Openness and Records Unit of the Cabinet Office, has proved “mind boggling” for the academic who submitted the original FoI request. Alasdair Roberts, of the Maxwell School of Syracuse University, New York, had asked how many FoI requests had been passed for consideration to the Government’s Central Clearing House and from there to the Cabinet Office. It was, he said, “an academic exercise” to gauge how the Act was working.

Professor Roberts had not asked for specifics but for details of referral systems, types of cases, their classifications and file numbers. It took the Cabinet Office five months to tell him that what he had asked for was too sensitive, might jeopardise national security and could interfere with the development of policy.

Professor Roberts, who holds British citizenship, said: “I am staggered at this decision, which is wholly inconsistent with the spirit of the law. In other countries, centralised clearance processes create long delays, and sometimes opportunities for political interference. I wished to know what cases were being routed to Cabinet Office, and how long the review was taking.”

But Sir Humphrey is having none of it. Enabling people to understand what is happening in Whitehall, his successors decreed, would fall foul of section 36(2)(c) of the Act: “Prejudice to the effective conduct of public affairs.”

Challenging the Whitehall addiction to secrecy is a handful of junior civil servants, many earning less than £20,000 a year. The 33 caseworkers handling appeals against refusals to disclose documents face a backlog of more than 1,200 cases — which at the current workrate may take eight years to clear."

Freedom to interfere? No minister, it's too sensitive: Whitehall's inner workings are shrouded still in secrecy (The Times, 3 October 2005)